It really shouldn't have to be so hard to find a decent LCMS congregation. There ought to be one near you, wherever you happen to be in this country. In most cases and places, it doesn't appear to be so hard to find an LCMS congregation in the vicinity, or two or three, at least in name. But whether or not those local congregations are worthy of the name, that is the concern. Whether they be, or not they be, that is the question.
I've got several young friends who are doing the college search thing. Like my own two oldest children, these pious young people have made the availability of a faithful congregation among their top priorities in looking at various schools. That they should do so makes me glad. That they should struggle so in their search makes me mad.
I suppose there will be those who might say that, oh, yes, that snooty Pastor Stuckwisch and his parishioners expect everything to be "just so," and they won't ever be satisfied with anything else. "There's just no pleasing some people." Okay, fine. I have high standards when it comes to the Church and Ministry, to the Christian faith and life. I'll always remember the great response that my dear father in Christ, Dr. Weinrich, once gave to some wiseacre who had asked if he was one of those "high church" guys. He said that, yes, he had a very high view of the Church; for she is, after all, the Bride of Christ, and she ought to be treated like a lady. It is often the case that all the wisdom you need can be summarized just that simply. I hope that none of my colleagues took their own brides out to Burger King on Valentine's Day. Why must some of them insist on escorting the Bride of Christ through a fast-food drive-thru?
Notwithstanding my "high church" elitism, I actually make a point of instilling in my parishioners a great deal of evangelical patience and consideration. I work hard at distinguishing betweeen that which is essential, the real heart of the matter, and that which is secondary, neither commanded nor forbidden. If they have listened to me (as most of them do rather well), they know what to look for, what they can tolerate and what they can live without, and what they ought to avoid. Because they are catechized by the Word and Spirit of God, and because they know the Gospel and their Catechism, the Liturgy (both in its essentials and in its Sunday best), and a real hymn when they sing it, I generally don't have to tell them where to go or what to do. I'll certainly answer if they ask, and I'll advise them out of love and concern. The truth is, I'm more likely to encourage a greater level of tolerance than many of my youth are inclined to give. What can I say? The young people of Emmaus have high standards, and they are not timid about asking for the very best when it comes to the things of Christ. It is especially their hunger for the Gospel that gives me hope for the future of Lutheranism.
There are other things that sometimes give me real hope, as well. For example, I found it so refreshing, this past week, to discuss confession and absolution with brothers in Christ in Ohio, without any of the usual "political" trappings. I wasn't there as a "liberal" or "conservative," but as a brother pastor among pastors. And we weren't discussing strategies or tastes, but the Word of God, the Gospel and the means of grace, pastoral care, and the way in which we can be of help and service to each other and to the people of God entrusted to our stewardship of His Mysteries. By and large, I didn't know these guys from Adam, other than as colleagues and peers within the Office of the Ministry and within the fellowship of the LCMS. I doubt that many of them knew much about me either. It was great. We dealt with substance. We spoke to one another candidly, with charity, with genuine give and take, with the Word of God. I drove home thinking that this is really how it ought to be, all the time. Then we'd maybe get somewhere, and the Gospel would be well-served among us to the glory of God in Christ.
To the point at hand: We dealt with the essentials, the heart of the matter. Maybe we were able to do so because we weren't debating the particulars of the Liturgy and its administration. There was no contention, because there was nothing thrust upon us from out of left field. We prayed a morning office and sang a couple hymns out of the Lutheran Service Book. It wasn't the order of service that I might have chosen, and perhaps they weren't the hymns that I would have picked, but I was pleased to be able to pray with my brothers in confidence and peace. The ceremony of the place was different than that of Emmaus, and the personal piety of the brothers there gathered differed from one man to the next, but none of this was troubling or upsetting. The demeanor and decorum were reverent and attentive to the Word of God, and our respective pieties assisted each of us in receiving that Word in faith, responding in prayer. These are among the benefits of using traditional orders of service and a common corpus of hymnody, which those in church fellowship have agreed upon together for their faith and life.
As I have said before, love can tolerate rather a lot in the freedom of faith, so long as the Gospel is given free course and allowed to have its way among us. I stand by my thesis that, where the preaching is gotten right, everything else will find its proper place in time; or, if not, it still won't matter so much anyway. I am convinced that the Gospel is honored and supported by the use of the traditional orders of service, and clearly confessed by good hymnody, and I believe that such things ought to be used in love for the neighbor. As to the rest of the details, I am honestly content to let such things work themselves out by way of genuine pastoral care within each congregational context. Differences in outward ceremony are not the heart of the matter; they are not necessary; they are not deal-breakers. But do preach the Gospel, and by all means let it predominate. Let everything else be bent into the service of the Gospel, including the ceremony. Don't let anything else be calling the shots or running the show.
If one of my own children, or one of my parishioners (who are in many ways like my own dear children), happen to visit another congregation, the pastor in that place had better be preaching the Gospel to them. Brethren, preach the Gospel for the sake of faith; and for love and pity's sake, use the Church's hymns and orders of service, rather than your own. Beyond that, I trust you to be a good and faithful pastor, and I'm not going to give you grief for not doing this or that. I'll admonish my young people to receive you in the name and stead of Christ, to honor and respect you for the sake of your office, to love you for the Gospel that you give them, and to rejoice in the good gifts that you are privileged to bestow upon them on behalf of Christ Jesus. If you don't do those things; if you neglect the preaching of the Gospel; if you withhold the gifts Christ freely gives, then I will exhort them to go elsewhere, even if they have to drive an hour to get there. It won't have anything to do with chasubles or chanting or genuflecting or elevations; though I do believe that each and all of these things can serve and support the Gospel. But that is really the point: to serve and support the Gospel. Do that in the way you are given and able to do, and everything else is cake and frosting.
If you are asked about pastoral care for one of my young people, please don't respond with what a friendly fellow you are, and please don't attempt to prove how well you relate to the youth. Rather, understand that you are being asked to preach the Gospel, to catechize your people with the Word of God, to hear their confession and grant them Absolution in order to fulfill God's will. Visit them when they are sick. Counsel them with the Holy Scriptures and the Catechism. Serve them with the means of grace. Comfort them with the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins. Give them the Body and Blood of Christ. They have buddies of their own. You may befriend them, too, but what they really need is a pastor, a shepherd who is constrained by his office to guard and keep and feed the flock.
Above all, preach the Word of God. It is helpful and important to use the Church's rites and ceremonies. But it is absolutely necessary that what you speak be the Word of God, and not your own wit and wisdom. Please do not lecture my parishioner, nor any of your own, on how to be a better him or her, on how to grow a garden or ride a bike, on how to shop responsibly, or how to save the whales. If you want to write self-help books, do it on your own time. Do not profane the Lord's pulpit with trivialities. If you aren't a great preacher, work at it; get better; and for the time being, at least talk about Jesus. And if one of my dear sheep asks you for the Gospel, for the Cross and Resurrection, for the forgiveness of sins, just do it; don't make excuses. Give thanks to God for such wisdom from out of the mouths of babes, who know what to ask for and won't settle for anything less than Jesus.
"Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. But if anyone does not sumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well" (James 3:1-2).
It shouldn't have to be so hard to find a decent LCMS congregation. It ought to be as simple as looking one up in the Lutheran Annual. There's always going to be local flavor and differences in personality, but there are some things that one should be able to count on; not just for the sake of "comfort" and "convenience," which are ultimately incidental, but for the sake of the Gospel.